It's strange being an American in Europe during the era of Trump. People, polite and crass, want to talk about what is happening in the US. In Riccia, Italy, the man at the public records office obliged my request to see my family's documents – after showing me news about family separations at the US border. He knows a lot of children from Riccia, he said. It makes him sad to see such a thing.
As such, I've learned to pause and consider the meaning of words before using them. They have different charges in different countries. In Ireland, I coiled at the sound of the word "nationalist," then I learned that the term is, in many ways, evolving. Some nationalists are people who envision a united Ireland, north and south.
The Irish seem to use "emigrate" more than "immigrant" for obvious reasons. Cringing at sentimentality, they say "die," instead of the euphemistic "pass away." To be a "good poet" is a compliment in Ireland, but when a person says you're "amazing," they are likely patronizing you. And finally, perhaps most importantly, when you're out alone at a pub, don't ever, EVER ask for a "ride" (hint: it's sexual...).
On the way to Belfast two weeks ago, I heard a word we now use disparagingly in America: Orange. As in number 45. As in fake, tanning bed skin (even I've been guilty). As in the administration that enforces the detainment of children as punishment to their families seeking asylum.
In Ireland, the context of "Orange" is different of course, but the energy felt the same. After crossing into the Protestant section of Belfast and seeing murals of machine guns and men in black hooded garb painted on the buildings, I was struck to notice four-story tall piles of wood waiting in preparation for July. When it comes, the Protestant half of the city will set the structures all around the city on fire. The bonfires remind themselves and those around them who won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. It was William of Orange, a Protestant ruler. The outcome of the battle has been no more Catholic rulers of the land since.
I've been thinking a lot about generational trauma, collective memory. Traditions. Rituals. Habits. The man at the public records office asked me what Italian traditions my family still practices. I told him spaghetti with anchovies and pasta fagioli. He told me these aren't traditions; they're just normal.
Right now, Belfast residents are preparing bonfires to celebrate over three hundred years of oppression in the so-called name of religion, but made manifest in very tangible ways like land rights, killings, and war.
In the USA, another Orange leader – mine – is separating children from their families, locking them up like animals in cages. Using them as pawns.
Here in Italy, between trips to the countryside, the gelataria, and ancient ruins, I see men with automatic weapons outside banks. I learn from my friend Daniela, about which attics harbored Jews in her family's village during World War II. She shows me the mountains where many tried, like the families at our own border, to run to refuge.
And as the sky in Rome fades into dusty peach, illuminating the ancient brick of these buildings, I'm left wondering what traditions we are really holding on to?
As if the lucky might ride it to shore
while the others go under.
Some dogs make for higher ground,
spurred by a shake or a sound
in a frequency to which we never tuned.
Dogs’ ears rise now
to the scream of the still-black screen,
the pitch before the picture.
Breaking here means broken elsewhere.
All our instruments, and still we’re late.
It’s six o’clock. In the windows,
families flicker on,
faces splashed blue in the wake.